This She Is a Haunting book review will either convince you that Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel is your next favorite horror read, or it’ll send you running for the hills.
She Is a Haunting has been on my radar for quite some time, not least because of the title and entrancing cover. The main character stares straight at the reader, her brow furrowed, with tears running down one cheek. She looks more disturbed than scared, despite the snaking roots climbing from her mouth while flowers bloom at the corners of her lips.
It seems this year I’m destined to read several books about houses that are much more than they seem. That’s certainly not a complaint, and I was glad to add She Is a Haunting to a list that also bears titles such as The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges and The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi.
Tran’s book stands apart in several ways, both in story and imagery, and the mystery of this novel hooked me from the first page and dragged me willingly along until the very last. The way the author describes the house and everything that happens within its walls is both beautiful and deranged, and in a way, that is the perfect descriptor for this book.
The premise of the story is straight forward—Jade Nguyen wants to go to college but her mother cannot afford to send her. In desperation, she reaches out to her estranged father in Vietnam, who agrees to pay for her schooling in exchange for a summer-long visit to the French colonial house he’s restoring in his native country.
The plan seems simple enough, even if Jade cannot stand her father or to see her little sister fawning over someone who willingly abandoned them when they were young. As long as she can pretend they’re a happy little family, she’ll get everything she needs to go to school and forge a life of her own.
Vietnam holds a lot of complicated feelings for Jade. She’s an American who can’t speak her family’s native tongue, so the country doesn’t feel like home for her, even as she sees how much joy it brings her mother to visit with her siblings. Tran talks frequently about the diasporic experience in this book, showcasing the unflinching truth of Jade’s situation both at home and abroad.
Though she doesn’t always understand the language or have the same relationship with their customs as her parents, she’s intimately aware of the impact of colonization on the country and its people. The fact that her father is fixing up a French colonial house to rent out to foreigners doesn’t sit well with her, and Tran makes this a plot point for the book, not only speaking directly about the atrocities that occurred in the past, but the racism and prejudice that’s apparent even to this day. It becomes personal when she discovers how entangled her own family’s history is in iniquity the house has witnessed over the years.
Jade’s one silver lining comes in the shape of a girl named Florence, who teaches her Vietnamese and works with her on designing the website for the rental’s grand opening. The relationship between these two characters is, in turn, both tender and sharp as Jade sorts through her feelings and hides any hint of queerness from her father, who does not support her lifestyle.
For better or worse, Jade has plenty of other problems to work through to keep her mind off personal matters. Though the romance is woven throughout the story and not pushed to the side or overlooked, it does take a backseat to the main storyline, which is that her father’s house is most definitely haunted.
It starts off quietly, with a sense of discomfort and strange occurrences that can be written off by Jade’s father and sister. The reader is, perhaps, even more aware than Jade, as we are privy to chapters from the house’s point of view. As short as they were, I found these sequences particularly disquieting. There is nothing quite as chilling as realizing your house is alive and wants to consume you, body and soul.
Whether Jade is special or just more aware than the rest of her family is not immediately evident, though she is soon targeted by the house, as though seeing allows you to be seen. Some of the spirits appear more benevolent than others, despite the fact that they all hold secrets that could be Jade’s saving grace or her undoing. Each of these moments, whether they come as Jade dreams or when she’s wide awake, are haunting, and it’s easy to feel the anvil hanging over all our heads as the truth looms nearer.
In fact, much of this book is a slow descent into madness, growing ever darker with every step closer to solving the mystery. If you came to this She Is a Haunting book review to find out just how scary this story is, then you’re in the right place. As someone who occasionally suffers from sleep paralysis, I found the moments in which Jade is unable to move while the house and its otherworldly inhabitants play with her mind particularly terrifying. Though there are some moments that would constitute a jump scare if it were a movie, most of the thrills in this book are more disconcerting than anything else. If you’re easily disturbed by insects or rotten food, then this book is not for you. However, if you can stomach it, the visuals will undoubtedly serve you exactly what you ordered. I’ll admit, this one gave me nightmares, though I found it was all worth it in the end.
Truth be told, there is quite a lot to love in this book. Jade is a relatable character with layered, complex feelings about her identity, her family, and the space she wants to carve for herself in the world. Tran made this book feel as though it was written from experience. The scenes between Jade and her father are particularly heartbreaking, and there was a sense of rawness there that made their every interaction painfully real. The narrative surrounding Jade’s diasporic experiences is as barefaced as it is informative. The point is not to present a comfortable account of past and present events, but to be honest in their portrayal.
Amidst all the horror, Jade and Florence’s cautious flirting made me smile and root for them, even as you wonder if and when the other shoe will drop. It’s a great juxtaposition to everything Jade experiences in this book, but the real highlight for me was when Jade decides to haunt the haunted house to convince her family that what she’s seeing is real. I’ve never quite read a story like that before, and it added another layer to an already interesting chronicle.
Though I’m keeping this She Is a Haunting book review spoiler-free, I want to also mention that the end of the book is equally satisfying and heartbreaking. The characters have experienced tragedy, and yet it has made it easier to see the truth of the world and themselves.
Overall, I found She Is a Haunting by Trang Thang Tran deliciously disturbing. Every bit of haunting imagery promised a clue to solving the mystery of this story, and I simply couldn’t look away. Discovering this is Tran’s debut novel only cements the fact that they are an author to watch, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I can’t wait to see what they do next.
‘She Is a Haunting’ published on February 28, 2023
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